South America

Tips for Travelling at Altitude

Rachel Williams

Rachel Williams  |  2 August 2014

Minimize the effects of altitude with these handy hints.

Spending time at high altitudes can be a reality when travelling in South America.  The Andes in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia are prime examples with many destinations above 2000 m.a.s.l and others as high as 4000+ m.a.s.l.  For example Cusco, the archeological capital of the Americas and base to visit the famous Inca ruins of Machu Picchu sits at 3300 m.a.s.l.  If hiking the Inca Trail you will hike over dead women's pass which is 4200 m.a.s.l.   As such it is important to prepare - check out our 5 tips and 5 myths about travelling at altitude.

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 5 TIPS FOR TRAVELLING AT ALTITUDE

1. PLAN AHEAD
Research your destination so you are aware if there are any high altitudes involved.  This way you can make sure you are prepared.

2. TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR
Acetazolamide (Diamox®) taken 24 hours prior to arrival to altitude and the first 2 days at altitude is 75% effective in preventing altitude sickness. It speeds up the acclimatization process in the body, stimulates breathing, raises blood oxygen and increases urination.  Depending on your risk factors, some doctors might advise you to pack ibuprofen (effective for relieving altitude-induced headaches) and ginger chews, capsules or tea, which can help quell altitude-induced stomach nausea.

3. ASCEND SLOWLY
Slow ascent to altitude is the key to acclimatizing well. Almost anyone can get altitude illness if they go too high, too quickly. An overnight stay at an intermediate altitude is very helpful. And when arriving at a high destination is is important to take a few days to acclimatise before any strenuous excursions such as taking on the Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu.

4. STAY HYDRATED AND EAT WELL
Staying hydrated aids your body in acclimatizing.  Avoid alcohol.  Sports drinks such as Gatorade or Powerade are a great option as they replace electrolytes and assist good hydration.
Plan on eating plenty of complex carbohydrates including whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes as complex carbohydrates allow you to use oxygen more efficiently and help maintain your energy levels—both important factors in preventing altitude sickness.

5. KNOW THE DANGER SIGNS
Most altitude-induced symptoms are mild and can be avoided—or treated—by following the tips described above.  However if you experience moderate to severe symptoms it is important you seek appropriate medical care.  Luckily most popular high altitude travel areas are well set up to help.
Symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Fatigue/loss of energy
  • Insomnia


5 MYTHS ABOUT TRAVELLING AT ALTITUDE

1. PHYSICAL FITNESS PROTECTS AGAINST ALTITUDE SICKNESS
Everyone, regardless of fitness, is susceptible to altitude sickness. The most fit people can suffer or the least fit can suffer your level of physical fitness is not a key factor.

2. DRINKING EXTRA WATER WILL PROTECT AGAINST ALTITUDE SICKNESS
Staying hydrated is important at altitude but this does not mean you need to drink gallons of extra water each day. You only need an additional liter to a liter and a half of water at altitude. Too much water can in fact be harmful.

3. DON'T DRINK CAFFEINE AT ALTITUDE
Drinking caffeine will not increase the liklihood of altitude sickness, in fact caffeine stimulates your brain, kidneys and breathing, all of which are helpful at altitude.

4. DIAMOX MASKS THE SYMPTOMS OF ALTITUDE
Taking Diamox  will not mask the symptoms of altitude. It works on the same pathway that your own body uses to help you acclimatize. It speeds up your natural process of acclimatization and if you stop taking it you will not have rebound symptoms. You should always talk to your doctor before taking Diamox.

5. CHILDREN ARE MORE MORE SUSCEPTIBLE TO ALTITUDE SICKNESS.
Several studies have shown that children have similar rates of altitude illness as adults. No evidence exist that children are more susceptible to the altitude. The main challenge with children  is that they can't communicate their headache and other symptoms so it is important you watch your young ones carefully.

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